Bridal Shower: Ottoman Turkish Style

A bridal shower is a common, North American custom that provides a bride-to-be with a chance to celebrate with the women and girls among her family and friends. Such parties are usually held in someone’s home before the date of the bride’s wedding. During such a party, the guests play games, eat sweet treats, and present the bride with gifts that are either personal or for the bride’s new home. The intention of such festivities is to rejoice with her and to wish her the best in her new life.

For centuries now, women and girls in the Middle East have held henna parties for a similar purpose. A friend or family member of the bride-to-be organizes the party, invites the bride’s family and friends, and hires women henna artists. At the party, guests enjoy delicious food and drink and noisy gossip.

But the highlight of the event would be the decorating of the bride-to-be with the reddish henna paste. Applying it with sticks onto the young woman’s skin, the artists draw on her hands and forearms and sometimes her collar-bone and throat swirling henna designs. When the drawing is complete and the henna paste has dried, the granule-like remains are brushed off, leaving the reddish decorations on the bride’s skin. Some of the guests also ask to be decorated with small designs, rewarding the artists with small tips.

A henna party has been the Middle Eastern version of a bridal shower. It’s intent has been to wish the young woman health and beauty.

If a henna party were ever to include both Turks and Armenians during the era of the Ottoman Empire, the location for such a party was a great difficulty. Turks disdained Armenians and were reluctant to enter their homes. And Armenians were seldom welcome in a Turk’s home. Although Turks and Armenians lived side by side in towns and cities in Ottoman Turkey, there were few places of neutral space. The two spaces of shared territory were the weekly bazaars, or open markets, and the town or neighborhood’s hammam, or Turkish bath.

Yet even these common spaces had rules that relegated separation. Women weren’t permitted to do the shopping in the bazaar. A woman’s husband or brother did it for her. If she ever did any shopping, a man of her family had to accompany her.

The rules for the use of the town’s hammam were even stricter. Each gender was assigned the use of the bath on a specific day once a week (1971. Everyday Life in Ottoman Turkey). And Armenians were required to use the hammam on entirely different days. There was no mixing of genders or people groups.

Even then, the hammam functioned in Ottoman Turkish towns as the space closest to a modern-day community center. Such a neutral space was most likely to have served as the location for a henna party if such an event included both Turkish and Armenian women prior to 1915.